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2 Cop Convictions in 2 Months: Is This a Tipping Point in Police Accountability?

Fatal police shootings rarely result in convictions. In Chicago and Texas, they just did.

People react outside of Chicago City Hall after a jury convicted Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder in the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
People react outside of Chicago City Hall after a jury convicted Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder in the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
(AP/Matt Marton)
Criminal convictions for police-involved deaths are rare.

Each year, about 1,000 police shootings result in fatalities, according to criminologist Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University. But in the 12 years between 2005 and 2017, just 82 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting -- and only 28 of them were convicted.

So it's especially remarkable that recent weeks have seen the convictions of officers in two different high-profile shooting cases. 

Earlier this month, a jury found Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In late August, a Texas jury's decision led to a 15-year prison sentence for a former police officer in the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.

For some, the twin convictions highlight some positive changes in police accountability. 

"It’s easy to say that things have not changed at all. But there has been change overall from just a few years ago," says David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and host of the podcast "Criminal Injustice." In the past, he says, police misconduct incidents were viewed as a "one-off." Now, due to national media attention and public protest, more people look at these incidents as "symptoms of a larger set of issues." 

Other experts are careful not to attribute too much significance to these outcomes in Chicago and Texas.

"I definitely don’t think you can say there’s a trend [toward more police convictions] with this limited data," says John Burton, president of the board of directors for the National Police Accountability Project, which helps people file civil misconduct cases.

When prosecutions and convictions do happen, which Burton says is "the exception and not the rule," they tend to follow special circumstances that were present in the Edwards and McDonald cases: Both received national media attention and involved police statements that conflicted with video footage. These cases also involved white officers and black victims, included at least one black juror and took place in big metropolitan areas. Such a combination of factors, experts say, distinguishes these cases from many other police shootings.


Why Are Police Convictions So Rare?

There are several reasons police convictions are "the exception" rather than the rule.

Generally, district attorney’s offices are overwhelmed with criminal cases, and "it’s against the interest of a prosecutor’s office to prosecute the police officers they work with everyday," says Vida Johnson, a criminal defense attorney and law professor at Georgetown University.

Prosecutors rely on officers to gather evidence and testimony that will determine whether criminal charges are warranted. "Then to actually prosecute the cases they need a police officer to be the witness at trial," Johnson says. This can create conflicts for officers faced with testifying against a co-worker. After the McDonald shooting, three of Van Dyke's fellow officers were charged with conspiring to cover up for him.

If a prosecutor does decide to bring a case -- and if a trial takes place -- then there can be challenges with assembling a jury, says Johnson. All-white juries tend to favor police, and Johnson's research shows how some jury selection methods can decrease the number of jurors of color. Prosecutors accused Van Dyke's lawyers of striking black people from the jury.

But some police accountability advocates are optimistic about a recent raft of  more reform-minded candidates running for office. Philadelphia’s new District Attorney Larry Krasner, for example, is shaking up the way his office handles police incidents. In March, Krasner's office charged an officer with assault for allegedly beating a man during an arrest. Last month, a former Philadelphia officer was indicted on murder charges for fatally shooting a man in the back. It's reportedly the first time in nearly 20 years the Philadelphia District Attorney's office has charged an on-duty police officer with the death of a suspect.

Still, experts like Harris and Burton believe there is an overemphasis on criminal prosecutions as a means of holding police accountable.

"I understand where that public call [for prosecutions] comes from," Harris says. "But it is hard when you consider that these are police who have the right to use force. I think we're better off focusing on other avenues."

For example, civil lawsuits, which can challenge entire police departments or localities rather than a single offender in a criminal lawsuit, can sometimes mandate reforms for police practices. After a mentally ill black man was fatally shot by police in 2016 in Sacramento, Calif., for instance, his family demanded reforms in a civil lawsuit. The settlement spurred the city council to pass a number of measures, including a requirement for video from officer-involved shootings to be released within 30 days of the incident.  

In addition to civil cases, there is an "untapped potential for state law" to reform police, says Seth Stoughton, an associate law professor at the University of South Carolina who focuses on police regulation. For example, he says, "state minimum training requirements [for police] are embarrassingly limited."

But changing state policing laws is easier said than done. Lawmakers face high political pressures when it comes to crime and policing. In California, one of the most liberal states in the nation, a bill that would restrict when police can use deadly force is currently on hold for the year, thanks in part to opposition from police unions.

Harris of the University of Pittsburgh knows the convictions for the McDonald and Edwards' shootings don’t solve every problem, but they are not insignificant.

"They show that convictions can be had," he says. "They are not impossible."

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